Having for years regarded grace as more important than regulations, there was a need to check through the canon law of the Church of Ireland lest there be letters of complaint on our return to Ireland. There was a Dipper funeral in our churchyard – the canons seem to suggest I might have insisted that the Prayer Book burial service be read, but who with any degree of compassion would impose an alien tradition upon a grieving family? Being absent, there could be a plea of innocence, but had I been there, I would simply have stood at the edge of the crowd and tried to show solidarity with fellow human beings in a time of grief.
The ‘Dippers’ or ‘Cooneyites’ are biblical fundamentalists, adhering firmly to the Book of Revelation. They do not have televisions or radios or read newspapers, and certainly would not have the Internet, so are not in a position to respond to material written about them by others. They would reject the term ‘Dipper’ as a pejorative description of their baptism of adults by total immersion, and would certainly reject the label ‘Cooneyite’; Cooney was one of their founding figures.. They would be classified as a ‘sect’ in the sociological sense of the word, but would obviously not see themselves in that way. The nearest parallel would be the Amish in Pennsylvania, although the Cooneyites do allow modern machinery. They marry within their own community and the women play a very passive role on their community, in accordance with their understanding of Saint Paul’s teachings. Because they have no churches, they have no burial ground, so must bury in cemeteries or churchyards controlled by others. Their funeral ceremonies have no traditional funeral prayers, just hymns and very evangelical preaching.
There would have been stories from the 1970s of Church of Ireland clergy objecting to any suggestion that such a ceremony be held within their churchyard (the same clergy would have probably told anyone who was not a confirmed member of the Church of Ireland that they could not receive Holy Communion). The result would have been that the funeral would have been held at the person’s house, or, even worse, at the churchyard gates, and the clergyman would have stood and waited for his opportunity to say Seventeenth Century prayers at the grave. It is difficult to see how such legalism did anything for the witness of a church in its community.
A Church of Ireland colleague, who had close relatives who belonged to the Cooneyite community, once described them as “strong on ethics and weak on grace” – which in plain English means that they believed very strongly that their life should reflect some standard of absolute purity and that they had no great sense that Jesus came to bring forgiveness for everyone, and not just for a small group of the ‘elect’. Should I be challenged I shall plead that I was attempting to show grace, or at least some sense of common humanity, for there has been little enough of that in generations past.